After Boston comes a tee party America is determined to enjoy

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Finally, for America's top golfers, it's back to business. No regrets, no more arguments about whether they missed a unique opportunity to show that life goes on, even in the face of unimaginable horror. Just the mouthwatering prospect, albeit 12 months late, of the most compelling event in the sport: the Ryder Cup.

Finally, for America's top golfers, it's back to business. No regrets, no more arguments about whether they missed a unique opportunity to show that life goes on, even in the face of unimaginable horror. Just the mouthwatering prospect, albeit 12 months late, of the most compelling event in the sport: the Ryder Cup.

A year ago, the biennial contest between Europe and the US was the biggest sporting casualty of September 11. In the 48 hours immediately following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, the feeling was that match should go ahead. Then the sheer enormity of what had happened sunk in. The 2001 Ryder Cup might have been planned in every detail for months and years. But for life to have switched back to normal at once was not only an impossibility. Americans believed it would also have been an insult.

True, there was some offstage sniping, especially in Europe, about gutless multi-millionaire sports stars not daring to travel outside their country, despite the fact that it was in their country, not abroad, that the attacks had been carried out, using US airliners, on domestic flights. Other sports like baseball and football had resumed, giving comfort to a traumatized nation. So why not golf?

Twelve months on however, it is hard to quarrel with Tiger Woods' explanation at the time: he was worried about the security risks of travelling. Above all though, it was not "the appropriate time" for competitive golf – a sport in which mental strength plays as large, if not larger part than technical ability. "I feel strongly that this is a time to pause, reflect and remember the victims of Tuesday's horrific attack," Woods went on, in words that ring even truer today. " I've always felt that I must be fully committed to each and every golf competition I enter but, due to this week's events, I am not." Gradually, the golfing establishment on both sides of the Atlantic swung overwhelmingly to that view.

Paradoxically however, the security risk is probably greater now than a year ago. Another attack at the Ryder Cup, barely a fortnight after September 11 itself, was never really on the cards – though it may not have seemed like it at the time. Today, anti-Americanism is on the rise around the world and al-Qa'ida is out to show it is still a force to be reckoned with.

What better target than that rarity of an American national sports team abroad, led by the country's most famous sporting figure? Some of the players see it like that. Phil Mickelson, the world no 2 and a qualified pilot, is travelling on his own private jet because he feels that is the safest way. "I'm OK about travelling in the US, but I'm still leery about leaving the country," Mickelson said last month. "In my opinion the Ryder Cup would be a prime target for something bad to happen."

But the near-unanimous view now is, it's time for golf. Not surprisingly, the build-up in the US has been muted. This is after all the 2001 Ryder Cup: the same qualifying players, the same captains, the same captains' choices, taking place at the same venue, with the same team uniforms. Everything was decided more than 12 months ago, before being put in aspic. So there's been little of the traditional needling, or phoney animosity between players who on every other occasion are the best of friends.

But once the first fourball tees off on Friday morning, however, the American public will experience the same old patriotic surge. Maybe the atmosphere at the Belfry will be more civil – not before time many will argue after the rampaging of US fans and even the players' wives around the 17th green at Brookline, Massachusetts in 1999, when Justin Leonard of the US sank a 45-foot putt to clinch the match.

But once again a golf tournament is poised to turn into the sporting equivalent of war, even after the real act of war that caused the tournament's postponment killed 3,000 people – and when another war, against Iraq, may be about to begin.

So don't bet on gentility winning out. The Ryder Cup is hand-to-hand combat in the uniquely exciting format of matchplay, culminating in the 12 singles contests on the Sunday afternoon, when the battle fluctates hole-by-hole, shot-by-shot, minute-by-minute. "We don't play this at a neutral site, it's a biased crowd," even the utterly impassive David Duval has acknowledged. "I don't think you want to be too civil. I don't mean that in a bad way, but you need some emotion."

Curtis Strange, the US team captain, agrees. "Some wonder whether the rivalry will be as intense or the fans as rabid," he wrote in Golf Magazine this month. "But I think once the first peg goes in the ground, the game will be on as usual. The fans will support their team as strongly as they always have."

Strange is raring to go, as well he might. Over the intervening year golf's balance of power has if anything tilted away from Europe towards the US – with the decline of Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood, who 12 months ago would have been considered the lynchpins of the European team only serving to emphasise the strength in depth of a US line-up named in 2001, but boasting six of the top 12 in today's world rankings.

There have been surprisingly few demands for changes to reflect current form. "I believe no one should be punished for an attack on our country," Strange added. "From the beginning Sam Torrance and I agreed we wouldn't change anything. This is and always will be the 2001 team."

Comments